Каминяр Дмитрий Генаддьевич: другие произведения.

Writing Assaignment 5

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Research Assignment

Dmitri Kaminiar

Jesse Archibald-Barber

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Felines and Men

To the human eye, few things in this world are as graceful as a feline, whether wild or domestic. It may not be beautiful in the eye of the immediate beholder, like the hairless sphinx breed (shown in an episode of "Friends"), but a feline always has a sort of a finesse, elegance, or style around it, like an aura. Accordingly, I am going to try to explain the feline "coolness", to show how the human perception of this "coolness" changes as the felines go from small to big, and to tell more about felines and their relationship with humans.

The domestication of the dogs happened almost twice as long ago as the domestication of cats (dogs for 14 thousand years, cats at most for only 8 thousand years) according to their DNA records. Thus, people treat the domestic dog as a separate species from its relatives like the wolf, the coyote, and the jackal, while the house cat - one of our own cats that tend to catch the sun on a porch, eyeing butterflies and sparrows with a narrowed eye - is still just a subspecies of the original wild cat. Even a fine, longhaired Persian, though it appears to be a plush toy, can be surprisingly wild, especially if you look it in the eye. Moreover, if the cat is instead one of the shorthaired tabby or single-color cat types, then it will take an even shorter stretch of the imagination to picture any cat as a wild, or at least a feral beast.

Whats more, domestic cats have better table manners than the dogs - again, thanks to their ancestry. Descendants of ambushers, cats had to be neat eaters, because otherwise their prey would smell-out their hidden location, ruining the hunt, while the pack-hunting dogs - it is irrelevant how one smells during a chase - did not have that problem. However, most modern people do not understand that; they just like (or dislike) the fact that the cats are orderly eaters while the dogs are not.

This semi-wildness of the cats (as talked above) made an impression on humans for centuries:

The great day for the cat must be placed some two thousand years ago in Ancient Egypt, when cats enjoyed a position of special privilege, and had long held it. The cat goddess was Bast, who was generally shown as a female figure with a cats head but sometimes assumed the form of a gigantic cat. Bubastis was the original home of Bast, but after a time the cat became a sacred character through the whole of Egypt, which indeed appears to have been a nation of fanatical animal-lovers (Briggs 1).

Of course, modern cats do not have anything as grand like an official deity of their own just like humans. In private, though, Bast has made a quiet comeback, recognized once more as the "official-unofficial" patron of the felines. The RPG rulebooks, "Deities and Demigods" and "Faiths and Pantheons" state this matter quite clearly - "Bast is a cat-headed deity whose portfolio includes protection [...], punishment of wrongdoers, and cats" (Deities and Demigods 143); "Bast was a Mulhorandi deity who served as patroness of cats" (Faiths and Pantheons 105).

Whats more, the cats by now have infiltrated other aspects of the modern-day popular culture, such as the comics- just look at the Catwoman of the DC comics or the Black Cat of the Marvel. These heroines clearly indicate: "cats are here to stay; they are cool and independent; enjoy them!"

However, in ancient times, people remembered one more thing that their modern day descendants largely forgot: even the small, domesticated, cats are not just cool and independent - they are also effective at what they do, and what they do is hunt. Small cats hunt small prey - birds and moths and such (Dale-Green 73), but they catch such creatures much more often than dogs of their size do. Modern day people may just joke about it, and think that it is cute, but they forget that cats initially were domesticated (and brought to the New World) to deal with such pestilent vermin as mice and rats, and they were much better at it than such traditional rat-catchers as ferrets or weasels:

When a cat pounces on a large rat and all goes well, it deals skillfully with the problem, stunning the rat with a blow, and seizing it by the head in a vice-like grip. But the cat is often left panting with exhaustion after struggling with a rat, and is sometimes badly wounded by it (Dale-Green 32).

However, as we turn from the small felines to big ones, the human realization of the felines as efficient hunters, top-notch predators of their environment becomes active, and the felines are no longer "cool" or even cute, but dangerous, powerful, intimidating - even lethal. Bloodthirsty lion-headed Sekhmet replaces her sister Bast; the cats of Freya the goddess of love become the demonic black cat minions of the witches (Mercatante 45-47). Man-eating lions in Africa, tigers in India and the rest of Asia, leopards on both continents, and jaguars in the New World - they all are recognized man-eaters, especially in the early twentieth century, when Europe just started to really encounter the big cats. These encounters brought forth Shere Khan and Bagheera of Kiplings "Jungle Book", "the Tyger" of William Blakes poem, and other feline monsters.

The leopard, in reverse symbolism, has come to represent cruelty, sin, the devil, and antichrist. In one massive medieval mural of the Last Judgment the leopard is shown devouring the bodies of the damned. Often in Renaissance paintings the animal is shown accompanying the Magi who have to the Christ child, a symbol of the eventual destruction of the devil by Christ (Mercatante 56).

Actually, the real problem of the Europeans (and the Americans to the lesser extent) with the great cats (and other dangerous wild animals) was something else - the people were (and are) re-making the environment around them to their own liking without thinking what happened to animals. This resulted in confrontations similar to the plot of the movie "The Ghost and The Darkness", which deals exactly with a confrontation between European men and alpha male lions. The Europeans win, but only because their guns are better weapons than what lions have, and without the guns, people are lion food.

Ironically, for a long time the same people instead observed with awe the same lions (not that it stopped them from hunting lions, but even that was done with style, reserved only for the kings, as told by Kenneth Clark in "Animals and Men") - "the king of the beasts" and so on. Of course, the reason for that awe was the same feline "charisma" that makes modern house cats look so cool; however, in the case of the almost-never-seen lion the charisma made the great cat appear "exotic", powerful, and dangerous: "Kind is she as Bast, terrible is she as Sekhmet" (Dale-Green 10) - in other words, something to be worshipped at a distance. When by the start of the twentieth century keeping a "safe distance" from lions, tigers, panthers, etc. was no longer possible, people re-positioned the lions to some place between the menace to society and a desired trophy that would hang over the mantle-place instead. Fame is fleeting, it seems.

Tiger, though, fared even worse:

[...] one of the most characteristic attributes of the tiger: its destructiveness towards man. So strong is this belief in the animals demonic qualities that there is a special hell in Hindu mythology where tigers go after death. The concept is even further elaborated in Malayan mythology, in which an entire city is constructed of human bones, skin, and hair is believed to be inhabited by tigers. The tiger has also been recognized in Western Europe from Roman times as a beast of destruction (Mercatante 55).

People formed such point of view probably because the tiger is the biggest, most powerful feline at this day and age, and in the Asian jungle, from India to Siberia, one on one, a tiger can easily overpower a human. Only with firearms at their side (and safety in numbers) can people triumph over the tigers. A similar situation happens in the American tropics, with the jaguar took the tigers role. "In Aztec mythology the jaguar was considered a totem animal of the powerful deity Tezcatlipoca" ("Jaguar - Wikipedia"). People should note though that the ethic Asians treated tigers with both fear and respect; in China, people treated the tiger with both superstitious fear (Lai 38) and respect:

The tiger represents the third of the Twelve Terrestrial Branches. It is called the king of the wild beasts and taken as the emblem of dignity and sternness, as well as military prowess.

It is said that clouds follow the dragons and winds follow the tiger - wherever a tiger goes, a wind rises. It is also said that a tiger harms one who is afraid (Lai 33).

Sadly, the real reason for this vilification of the large felines were the flaws of the humans - we were often unable to find anything positive about the large cats (or feel superior towards these felines) from our point of view, and possibly envied the animals murderous potential as well.

On the other hand, when it came to the lion and the puma, people were able to find some sort of a positive feeling towards them. That largely happened because the pumas are rather meek and friendly animals and do not tend to hunt people on a regular basis, while the lions always retained some of the old feline charisma as the kings of the beasts (remember the Disney movie "The Lion King"?), especially for the Native Africans. "The lions reputation for kindness extends back to an early, famous tale, generally known as Androcles and the Lion" (Mercatante 75). (The Europeans, with their zodiacal Leo the lion too are more "in favor" of the lion than against it.) As for the puma, it symbolizes the level of the human world for the Incas ("Chakana - Wikipedia").

It is time to get back to initial matter of the feline "coolness". The domestic cats are "cool" as in "fashionable", because people do not understand that they are "cool" as in "cold-headed and efficient hunters". On the other hand, the above statement no longer applies to the domestic dogs though people try to change that through breeding and training with varying success. However, unlike the dogs, the cats are still wild even after several thousand years of living alongside people with the full status of "pets" - something that few other mammals or birds were able to do well. In addition, the big cats are superior to humans in strength, speed, and other matters of physical prowess; they can actually easily overpower people and eat them: this makes them "villains" still to some people. Only the sharks are just as notorious among the big predators. Thus, let us end this essay with a warning: be nice to cats, for should something happen to our technological edge, the cats and their big-sized kin will be right there to remind us, where we really stand in the food pyramid.

Works Cited:

Boyd, Eric, Mona, Eric, & etc. Faiths and Pantheons. Belgium: Wizards of the Coast. 2002.

Briggs, Katherine. Nine Lives. London and Henley: Routledge & Kenan Paul Ltd. 1980.

"Chakana - Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia". 5 Oct. 2006. Wikipedia, .

Clark, Kenneth. Animals and Men. The Netherlands: Drukkerij de Lange/van Leer. 1977.

Dale-Green, Patricia. The Archetypal CAT. Dallas, Texas: Spring Publications, Inc. 1963.

"Jaguar - Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia". 20 Nov. 2006. Wikipedia, .

Lai, T.C. Animals of the Chinese Zodiac. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Book Centre.

Mercatante, Anthony S. Zoo of the Gods. New York: Harper & Row. 1974.

Redman Rich, Williams Skip & etc. Deities and Demigods. Belgium: Wizards of the Coast. 2002.

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